So many words! Just look at any Dictionary. How can I learn all those new words? It’s often overwhelming when you begin to study a language. I’d like to take away that overwhelmed feeling and give you a few simple strategies for developing vocabulary and retaining vocabulary.
First of all, while all languages contain many words (and some many more than others), you don’t need to learn them all! How many English speakers know all the words in a standard collegiate dictionary, much
less in the Oxford Unabridged? An article by Benny Lewis points out, “in English just 300 words make up 65% of all written material. We use those words a lot, and that’s the case in every other language as well.” In his book, Fluent Forever, Gabriel Wyner suggests building a vocabulary of 625 words which are used frequently in all languages.
Cognates, or “true friends,” are words that sound similar in two different languages and carry the same meaning. For example, without doing any study, how many of these Spanish words do you understand?
- El hotel
Many of the words you need to learn are cognates, just like this list. These words are easy to master and dramatically lower the learning curve for acquiring new vocabulary.
To thoroughly learn a new word, you need to be able to recall the sound of the word, how it’s spelled, and what it means: three pieces of data. Now, let’s add one more piece: you need a connection or mnemonic device, something that holds the other three pieces together, and that connection needs to be memorable. The best mnemonics are often humorous pictures. For example, the Hebrew root yšb means “to sit, stay, remain.” I imagined yellow shore beetles. You couldn’t get rid of them. The picture in my mind was like Bill Murray in Caddy Shack trying to exterminate the gophers. Years later, I’ve never forgot that word.
You don’t learn best by just repeating words over and over. Studies have found that spaced repetition dramatically eases the learning process. That is, you look at a word and its meaning. Then you recall them a few seconds later, then a few minutes later, and gradually increase those intervals. Several online flashcard apps, like Byki and Anki, are available which automate this process. It will also speed the process if you use pictures to recall what a word means instead of always translating into your preferred language.
Here are a few more tips from Luca Lampariello, a polyglot and expert language coach:
These are a few of the ideas I (and many others) have found helpful in learning and retaining vocabulary in a new language. I’d welcome your comments and questions below.